Indonesian lecturer threatened after class church trip

Professor forced into hiding as rights groups, pastor call for greater tolerance
An Indonesian university lecturer from Banda Aceh has received death threats after taking Muslim students on a trip to a Christian church.

The threats began after Rosnida Sari, who teaches in the Faculty of Mission Work and Communication at the University of Ar-Raniry, posted an article about the trip on the ABC’s Australia Plus website on Monday.

The trip in November was to a Protestant church in Nanggroe Aceh Darussalam province.

The province introduced sharia law more than a decade ago and authorities have become increasingly hardline in imposing the law in recent years.

In her article, Sari said the trip was aimed at building “a bridge of peace” between Muslims and Christians.

According Andreas Harsono, Indonesia researcher for the New York-based Human Rights Watch, the article went viral over the next 24 hours inciting controversy on campus and in town. “She received hundreds of threatening messages including [threats of] killing,” he told ucanews.com on Thursday.

Harsono, who is a guest lecturer at the university, heard about the threats after she rang him early Tuesday morning. She called him and said that “her mother and little sister have moved away from their house, fearing of possible attacks”.

She too has moved to a safe place and her phone number has changed. Efforts to reach Sari directly have not been successful.

Harsono said he believed Sari had no objective to convert her Muslim students to be Christians. “She wants to help her students to [be] able to analyze, to be able to verify information, thus to be open minded because that is exactly what Aceh needs: an open-minded younger generation to build their future,” he continued.

A pastor at the Protestant Church in Western Indonesia, Reverend Domidoyo Ratupenu, recalled that at least 17 Muslim students came to his church in early November.

“Miss Rosnida [Sari] asked me to explain [to them] about the position of women according to the Holy Bible. Then I explained it. There was also a question-answer session,” he told ucanews.com.

“That’s not Christianization. It’s merely about knowledge,” he said, adding that a number of Muslim students have come to his church in the past for a similar purpose.

Similar comments came from Elka, one of Sari’s Muslim students. “We came to the church only to study gender from another religion’s perspective,” she told PortalKBR.com.

A statement issued on Thursday by the Indonesian Civil Society also denounced the threats against the lecturer. “This case is the tip of the iceberg… [regarding] the weakening of tolerance in society.”       

Ibnu Sa’dan, who heads the province’s Religious Affairs Department, said the lecturer should have been more cautious given the current situation. “In Aceh, it’s very sensitive because there’s sharia law,” he told ucanews.com.

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“It’s different from other countries. This is Indonesia. In Aceh, she needs to be reminded of the norms existing here. Let’s say entering a church is regarded as something taboo.”

He also noted that the lecturer didn’t ask for permission from her dean before taking her Muslim students to the church. “This is a violation.”

The dean hung up when contacted by a reporter and subsequently turned off his phone. Attempts to reach other officials at the university were unsuccessful. 

In a statement circulated Thursday, the university offered "an apology to Aceh people that have been disturbed by this issue" and promised to prevent similar incidents from occurring in the future. The statement said Sari would be "sanctioned" for her actions. 

Referring to the threats, Sa’dan said the department is working with the police to protect Sari.

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